Secretary of the Commonwealth teams up with local web developer to “liberate” 40 years of elections and ballot questions
Boston, MA – As Beacon Hill considers passage of a major election modernization bill, Massachusetts Secretary William Galvin has been quietly making upgrades of his own. With little fanfare, Galvin’s Elections Division recently launched a searchable public database of Massachusetts election statistics (located at http://electionstats.state.ma.us). The move follows a national trend of making government information easier to find online, and has impressed journalists, researchers, and voting rights advocates.
“We are very encouraged to see the Secretary take an aggressive step in bringing Massachusetts voters in line with other forward-thinking states,” said Cheryl Crawford, Executive Director of MassVOTE.
The obscurely titled “PD43+” gets its namesake (and its contents) from the state’s official bi-annual elections report, “Public Document 43.” The site displays the latest official results but also offers a vast 40-year archive of electoral history. Stretching back to 1970, the site contains every election, ballot question, and candidate for every office in Massachusetts (except for municipal offices); from U.S. President on down to County Sheriff.
As of January 2014, the site contained approximately 23,000 elections, 10,000 candidate profiles, and 1,500 ballot questions, all with vote counts drilled down to the city or town level before 2002, and drilled down to the precinct level thereafter.
The inventor of PD43+ is not Galvin’s office, but Somerville resident Adam Friedman, CTO of software company ViV Web Solutions. Calling himself a “civic technologist,” Friedman originally conceived of the idea while conducting research on election reform to help organizations like Common Cause and MassVOTE, where he serves as a board member. What began as a hobby project evolved as he realized he was fulfilling an unmet need for accessible government data. He showed the prototype to Elections Division staff, who installed it as part of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website. Staff members continually update the site as new election results are certified.
Beyond easing a quick lookup of an election, the site’s data helps journalists and political scientists gain new insights into the electoral health of Massachusetts. Since PD43+ allows one-click downloads of election result spreadsheets, researchers can easily create their own maps and other visualizations to highlight trends and distill meaning. Previously, researchers had to undergo time-consuming data extractions and manipulations to create a simple bar graph.
“Without this data, we would have never been able to highlight the level of polarization and regionalization of our state’s political parties and quickly publish them as interactive maps to massincpolling.com,” explained Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group.
Public benefits notwithstanding, Galvin’s office may have had “selfish” reasons for launching the PD43+. Staff have reported that around five percent of all incoming calls during election season come from constituents looking for past election results, which can require several hours to hunt through paper archives. Meanwhile, the state faced an avalanche of special elections last year, bringing eleven new races under the office’s purview.
“PD43+ is helping Elections Division staff get those calls off their plate so they can focus on running top-notch elections,” said Friedman
Inspired by the partnership and the public’s expectations for a more open government, Friedman plans on “liberating” other high-value datasets for the public good. “Taxpayers already pay for this data. We should have the right to see it whenever we want.”
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